Article by Michael Bergin, Miss Porter’s School
Image above: Christine Pina, chief advancement officer; Kate Windsor, head of school; Karen T. Staib, past chair of the board of trustees; and Michael Bergin, chief financial and
operating officer, all cutting the ribbon on Macomber Dorm at Miss Porter's School.
In the spring of 2019, it was clear that Miss Porter's School, where I have worked since 2008, was going to exceed the boarding enrollment target by 10%. This happened earlier in my career at the school, and our over-enrollment led to unusually high attrition. We were simply too big, and our dorms, dining hall, classrooms and campus spaces felt crowded. We had not aligned our enrollment growth with our facilities and inadvertently compromised important aspects of the student experience. After that unpleasant experience, we set a firm enrollment target with the goal of ensuring that we would provide a high-quality program and maintain low attrition.
John Macomber was a member of our board from 2014–2017. A proud graduate of Phillips Andover, John was a dream board member. He joined the board late in life and was exceedingly wise, engaged and devoted to Miss Porter’s School. John’s beloved late wife Caroline was a graduate and former board chair, his daughter Janet and other family members were all proud Ancients (our term for graduates). John and I worked closely together on our investment and finance committees and developed a mutual respect and affection. He would always call me after meetings to debrief and offer additional commentary. During his time on the board, John was a vocal proponent of increasing the size of our school, as our small scale made our operations more challenging than for schools with larger enrollments; however, during his service we kept our enrollment constant.
We were hoping that our demonstrated need would line up with John’s longtime interest in expanding our enrollment, potentially coming together beautifully in the form of a significant gift to fund the renovations.
Immediately after our 2019 spring board meeting, faced with the challenge of increasing our boarding capacity by August, we brainstormed ideas for space and funding. We had a campus building that was available and we figured we could renovate it quickly to provide the additional beds we needed. Remembering John’s encouragement to increase our school size, he seemed like a natural supporter. However, he had made clear that due to his age, he had made his last significant gift to Miss Porter’s School beyond what was in his estate.
In light of our relationship, I offered to go to Washington, DC, to speak with John and ask him if he would support our dorm renovation. My head of school and chief advancement officer were supportive and enthusiastic. We hatched a plan and my colleagues in alumnae and development set up a meeting and thoughtfully prepared me. We were hoping that our demonstrated need would line up with John’s longtime interest in expanding our enrollment, potentially coming together beautifully in the form of a significant gift to fund the renovations.
I flew to DC and met with John in his home office, and carefully laid out our over enrollment situation, the need for more beds and our proposal — we had heard him and had increased our boarding enrollment by 10%. We needed support to quickly renovate a building into a dorm in a short period of time. John listened carefully and asked good questions. I took a deep breath and asked him if he would consider a major gift to support the renovation.
I then sat quietly for what seemed like forever, but it was really just a few seconds, and he magically said that yes, he would be happy to make a gift. We chatted for a little while longer and I departed. I waited until I was around the corner and I conferenced my head of school and chief advancement officer to let them know that John had said YES to our proposal. I was moved by their joy, as their support and encouragement had put me in a position to successfully make the ask.
One lesson here is that CFOs and other administrators outside development are sometimes the perfect person to make an ask. I had asked for money before, but this was a very significant ask. While I was nervous, I was also well prepared and was speaking about a project and a school that I knew inside and out. My credibility with the donor was that he knew I was a good steward of our resources and that helped make the gift happen.
I walk by Macomber Dorm frequently and take a little extra pride in this special residence with 14 beds — a dorm that honors an important and generous Miss Porter’s School family, for which I had the honor of asking for a gift that will support future generations. My experience as the chief financial and operating officer allowed me to build a meaningful relationship with a trustee and donor and the confidence and support of my head of school and chief advancement officer made this gift happen. I was the right member of our team to make the ask and it is one of the greatest thrills of my professional career.